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This Day in Labor History: December 19, 1907

[ 11 ] December 19, 2016 |

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On December 19, 1907, the Darr Mine near Smithton, Pennsylvania, caught fire and exploded. 239 people died, many of them children. This was the largest workplace disaster in Pennsylvania history.

The Darr mine, located southeast of Pittsburgh, was typical of the Appalachian mining country during the early twentieth century. The workforce was a polyglot group of workers from around Europe. While native born Americans made up a percentage of the workforce, many were from Europe, particularly from what are today Greece, Poland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Italy. Smithton was a small town that developed around coal mining and related industries like coking. The workers there faced similar terrible conditions to miners around the region. Long days meant that workers only saw the light most of the year on Sundays. Pay was low and workers had little control over their lives

About 400 workers labored in the Darr mine under unsafe working conditions that put workers lives at risk every day. As this series has explored in detail, coal mining was an incredibly dangerous profession. A mere few days earlier, the nearby Naomi mine had exploded, killing 34 workers. Many of the unemployed workers from that mine quickly found jobs at the Darr, unfortunately as it turned out.

At about 11:30 a.m. on December 19, 1907, the Darr mine exploded. It absolutely destroyed everything and everyone in the mine. The report of the Pennsylvania Department of Mines in the aftermath noted, “Persons in the vicinity of the mine describe the explosion as an awful rumbling followed by a loud report and a concussion that shook the nearby buildings and was felt within a radius of several miles…. The explosion had been so terrific in its force that the inspectors were convinced upon a superficial investigation that it would be impossible for any of the entombed workers to be rescued alive.”

The official cause of the explosion was that miners had entered a location that the fire marshal had cordoned off the previous day while carrying open lamps. In fact, it’s hard to know just what happened. But in any case, 239 miners died, the worst mining disaster in Pennsylvania history. The only reason more workers did not die was that the Greek miners took the day off to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas. Otherwise, the death toll likely would have cleared 400. Over half the dead were native English speakers, an unusual occurrence during this period, more typical of 19th century mines, although again, this is in part because the sizable population of Greeks had all taken the day off. Town residents rushed to the mine, but there was not much they could do except dig out the bodies, a process that took days. One worker survived, a miner named Joseph Mapleton who was near the entrance. He had only minor injuries and took place in the failed rescue attempt that followed.

Of course, many challenged blaming the miners for the explosion. Some blamed the lack of inspections, others the general lack of safety and specifically the lack of ventilation. One theory was an accidental dynamite blast. But in any case, the fundamental reason was that early 20th century mine owners simply did not care about workplace safety. Nor did they have any reason to as they rarely if ever suffered any meaningful consequences if workers died on the job. This was the Gilded Age after all and employers could do almost anything they wanted to their employees. Wage slaves indeed. The coal company did ban the head lamps in the mine. But they were not held liable for the deaths. In fact, nothing meaningful happened because of these deaths. Critics of mine safety did issue a report that was deeply critical of the lack of ventilation in the mine, as well as most mines throughout the bituminous country, but again, nothing concrete came of it. Later experimentation showed high levels of damp in the mine, even after the explosion.

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The temporary morgue for the dead miners

As was so typical of the many coal mining disasters of this period, a couple of hundred dead workers didn’t change many hearts, even as it slowly led to reforms. Rural Pennsylvania was far away from centers of power and wealthy people didn’t much care about people they couldn’t see. It would take Triangle to start getting Americans to take workplace safety seriously, but it would take a whole lot more than that to create even moderately effectively regulations for coal mine safety. Even in the very recent past, negligent employers such as Don Blankenship have murdered workers.

The Darr fire was simply one incident in the deadliest month in U.S. mining history. In December 1907, over 3000 miners died on the job. Darr was only the second largest single incident, as over 300 miners died in the Monongah mine in West Virginia on December 6. Many more died in ones and twos and by the dozens, thousands of workers in one industry perished in one terrible month.

Ultimately, this region of Pennsylvania would see many of the worst events in American labor history, from the Homestead strike outside of Pittsburgh to the Donora Smog of 1947, where U.S. Steel murdered people through pollution a mere 15 miles west of the Darr mine site.

This is the 202nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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Trump’s Lies to Workers

[ 121 ] December 9, 2016 |

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Donald Trump’s absurd attacks on USW Local 1999 president Chuck Jones gives him the opportunity to respond and note Trump’s lies to working-class Americans, as well as why Trump appealed to union members through those lies.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Trump got involved. He sat down with Carrier leaders. Afterward, he announced that 1,100 jobs would be saved. When I first heard the news, I was optimistic. But I began to get nervous when we couldn’t get any details on the deal. I urged caution, but our members got their hopes up. They thought their jobs had been saved.

When I met with Carrier officials last Thursday, I realized that that wouldn’t be the case. Though Trump said he’d saved 1,100 jobs, he hadn’t. Carrier told us that 550 people would get laid off.

Trump didn’t tell people that, though. When he spoke at our plant, he acted like no one was going to lose their job. People went crazy for him. They thought, because of Trump, I’m going to be able to provide for my family.

All the while, I’m sitting there, thinking that’s not what the damn numbers say. Trump let people believe that they were going to have a livelihood in that facility. He let people breathe easy. When I told our members the next day, they were devastated.

I was angry, too. So I told a Washington Post reporter the truth — that Trump’s 1,100 number was wrong. When Trump read my comments, he got angry. Last night, he tweeted:

And we know what Trump tweeted.

Jones concludes:

What I can’t abide, however, is a president who misleads workers, who gives them false hope. We’re not asking for anything besides opportunity, for jobs that let people provide for their families. These plants are profitable, and the workers produced a good-quality product. Because of corporate greed, though, company leaders are racing to the bottom, to find places where they can pay the least. It’s a system that exploits everyone.

Of course, the media’s response to this has been terrible, as outlets like Politico and CNN and others are referring to Jones as a “union boss.” This pejorative is inaccurate. Jones is an elected union leader with accountability to his members. This is the equivalent of Trump attacking Frank Sobotka and national media outlets then calling him a union boss.

I do think Jones really gets at why Trump’s lies are so appealing to wide segments of the white working class. Not only does he make them feel good for being white, he tells them what they want to hear when it comes to their jobs. It doesn’t much matter that these are lies later. If someone tells you that they will allow you to feed your family through a dignified job, that is an incredibly appealing message. And everyone who says that economic anxiety wasn’t an issue for white working class Trump voters in the Midwest has to reckon with that fact. Of course, it wouldn’t work for black and Latino working class voters because Trump’s message is racist. But the economic anxiety felt by all members of the working class is very, very real.

More on Workers and Environmentalists

[ 21 ] December 7, 2016 |

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My New Republic essay on how environmentalism needed to get in touch with working-class concerns came out on the day that protestors forced the Obama administration to reroute the pipeline away from the Standing Rock reservation. That was a total coincidence. But the aftermath of this is a good window into a number of related issues. First, it’s well worth noting how the work of the wonderful Bill McKibben has accomplished a great deal of bringing environmentalism back toward a mass movement, making connections with a lot of other left-leaning groups, if not necessarily a lot of organized labor. McKibben has a good essay placing the pipeline movement in the larger context of indigenous activism as well as thinking about what this means in Trump’s America:

Indigenous organizers are some of the finest organizers around the globe – they’ve been key to everything from the Keystone fight to battling plans for the world’s largest coal mine in Australia. If we manage to slow down the fossil fuel juggernaut before it boils the planet, groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network and Honor the Earth will deserve a great share of the credit. Right now, for instance, Canada’s First Nations are preparing for “Standing Rock North” along the route of two contested pipelines out of Canada’s tarsands. But in the Dakotas it’s been particularly special: they’ve managed to build not just resistance to a project, but a remarkable new and unified force that will, I think, persist. Persist, perhaps, even in the face of the new Trump administration.

Trump, of course, can try and figure out a way to approve the pipeline right away, though the Obama administration has done its best to make that difficult. (That’s why, instead of an outright denial, they simply refused to grant the permit, thus allowing for the start of the environmental impact statement process). But if Trump decides to do that, he’s up against people who have captured the imagination of the country. Simply spitting on them to aid his friends in the oil industry would clarify a lot about him from the start, which is one reason he may hesitate.

In any event, though, time is measured somewhat differently in the dispute between this continent’s original inhabitants and the late-coming rest of us. For five hundred years, half a millennia, the same grim story has repeated itself over and over again. Today’s news is a break in that long-running story, a new chapter. It won’t set this relationship on an entirely new course – change never comes that easily. But it won’t ever be forgotten, and it will influence events for centuries to come. Standing Rock, like Little Big Horn or Wounded Knee, or for that matter Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, now belongs to our history.

Meanwhile, while environmentalists need to do much more to connect with workers, it’s not as if the unions involved in the pipeline construction are bathing themselves in glory. Of course, these tensions have a historical context that I tried to address in the New Republic piece, but in the present, it’s fine if you don’t want to support the Laborers or Teamsters position on the pipeline. The IBT and LIUNA reactions are very disappointing:

The Teamsters union warned good jobs are at risk Monday over a decision by the Obama administration to stop construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

After twice defending its approval process in court, with victories in both cases, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed course when it announced Sunday that it would not approve construction permits needed to finish the project. The Teamsters argued the decision will hurt working Americans.

“The decision will have a direct and negative impact on the hardworking men and women—including Teamsters and other union members—who have invested their lives in building the infrastructure that makes this country run,” the Teamsters said in a statement provided to InsideSources. “The Teamsters Union looks forward to moving past this disappointing decision toward the eventual approval of this easement and completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its supporters claim the nearly completed pipeline runs too close to sacred tribal burial sites and could affect the tribe’s water supply, though the pipeline never crosses onto tribal land. The Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) argues the Obama administration is “appeasing environmental extremists.”

“Blocking the final portion of construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline after it is 93 percent complete and fully reviewed is a short-sighted, gutless, and irresponsible decision,” LIUNA President Terry O’Sullivan said in a statement Sunday. “It only serves to prolong the conflict that is dividing communities in North Dakota.”

This is ridiculous. The Obama administration did not kill the project. It just sought to change the route. Yes, this means there are delays. But the work is going to happen. On the other hand, I do get the deep necessity of these unions to find work for their members, many of whom are chronically underemployed. The plain fact is that there is not enough good work for working-class people anywhere in this country. But these unions, who desperately need allies to survive in the Trump years, are also acting out of cultural biases and disdain for the hippies and Indians involved in the protest and are doing themselves no favors. In the end, most of the left will barely care if LIUNA is demolished in the next 4 years. And while some of that is on the left activists from various movements who are indifferent or even hostile to collective economic action, a lot of it is the consistently antagonistic positions many unions, particularly in the building trades have taken toward other social movements.

American Unions: An Extinction Level Event

[ 92 ] November 27, 2016 |

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Above: The federal response to a strike in 2018.

Harold Meyerson’s election post-mortem for organized labor is exactly as grim as it should be.

As Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin – states that once were the stronghold of the nation’s industrial union movement – dropped into Donald Trump’s column on election night, one longtime union staff member told me that Trump’s victory was “an extinction-level event for American labor.”

He may be right.

A half-century ago, more than a third of those Rust Belt workers were unionized, and their unions had the clout to win them a decent wage, benefits and pensions. Their unions also had the power to turn out the vote. They did — for Democrats. White workers who belonged to unions voted Democratic at a rate 20 percent higher than their non-union counterparts, and there were enough such workers to make a difference on Election Day.

That’s not the case today. Nationally, about 7 percent of private-sector workers are union members, which gives unions a lot less bargaining power than they once had, and a lot fewer members to turn out to vote. The unions’ political operations certainly did what they could: An AFL-CIO-sponsored Election Day poll of union members showed 56 percent had voted for Hillary Clinton and 37 percent for Trump, while the TV networks’ exit poll showed that voters with a union member in their household went 51 percent to 43 percent for Clinton, as well. In states where unions have more racially diverse memberships, Clinton’s union vote was higher (she won 66 percent of the union household vote in California).

In states where union membership is predominantly white, Trump did better – actually winning the Ohio union household vote with 54 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 42 percent The very economic and social wreckage the unions had warned against when they had opposed NAFTA and permanent trade relations with China ended up diminishing their own numbers and that of Democratic voters, and helped spur Trump to victory.

Of course, the very combination of real economic anxiety and racism that sent white union members into the Trump camp is going to just cause more economic anxiety for them. But hey, it will cause terrible things for black people too so win! I guess. But it’s not like Trump is going to craft policy that will pay off that union support. He hasn’t named his Secretary of Labor yet, but given the rest of this nightmare fascist plutocratic Cabinet, there is no reason to think of this as anything but nightmarish. That doesn’t mean that the history of struggle among the American working class will end. Workers will always fight for a better life for themselves, even if they get killed by the military for doing so. But it may well mean that 80 years of progress are repealed in the next 4 years. Unfortunately, in this case, Democrats hold plenty of blame too for not taking the impact of globalization and automation particularly seriously for the last 50 years, assuming that other gains in the economy would make up for these hard-hit communities. Well, these hard-hit communities have hit back hard. Even if it ends up a self-punch too.

This Day in Labor History: November 27, 1937

[ 15 ] November 27, 2016 |

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On November 27, 1937, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) debuted its play “Pins and Needles,” which would become the longest running musical of the 1930s. This cultural form of labor feminism at a time when organized labor was dominated by male workers is a vital and important moment both in the cultural history of work but also in the history of women and work.

The ILG was founded in 1900 and despite conservative leadership, became the union that New York garment workers organized in during the Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 and the aftermath of the Triangle Fire in 1911. During the 1920s and early 1930s, like many New York based unions, it was riven with strife between radicals and anti-radicals, leading to labyrinthine power struggles not worth revisiting here except to say that the constantly shifting ideology of the Communist Party ultimately hurt the radical cause. Eventually David Dubinsky rose to lead the ILG in 1932. Dubinsky consolidated control quickly, ruling the union with an iron fist, which was ultimately undemocratic but also turned it into a functional organization instead of one constantly in turmoil from infighting among political factions. The union also was dominated by male leadership despite the fact that the large majority of its membership was women. Labor feminism would struggle to develop internally in such a structure.

The ILG’s Educational Department sought to create cultural productions and artistic outlets for its members that included art, dance, and theater. In 1934, the Educational Department reorganized and created a theater troupe made up of union members. These weren’t professional actors. The were just everyday women working in the garment industry whose union thought it would be useful to enhance their creativity, an idea that is far away from unionism of recent decades. Louis Schaffer led this effort and he had a vision to bring the labor movement to the extremely popular cultural form of Broadway productions. ILG president David Dubinsky thought this was a great idea. Schaffer recruited professionals to write the play and train the actors. A cast of 55 mostly female garment workers were trained to become actors. This took time to accomplish. He could have brought in professionals, but in his determination to make this a truly working-class production, he had to bring the workers up to standard in their acting ability. This would ultimately delay the production’s opening by about 18 months. It finally opened to the public on November 27, 1937, after several practice performances.

The production was written and directed by men, but centered women operating in the larger political struggles of the time. Schaffer wanted Pins and Needles to entertain working class people by focusing on working class issues. In order to accomplish this mission, Pins and Needles did not have a set script. The workers themselves constantly reworked the songs, making them about themselves. There were anti-Mussolini songs and other songs about the international anti-fascist struggle, but as the play developed over its many performances, it ultimately became much more about the women and their lives. Labor feminism became the play’s central theme.

The critics largely loved the show. It had good tunes, catchy lyrics, and everything that the public would want in a popular production. At first, it only played on the weekends because the workers were still full-time employees in garment factories. Eventually, they were able to obtain leaves from their jobs to perform full time. The cast also expanded into a second set for late afternoon shows that could reach workers who could not attend in the evenings.

As the labor politics of the 1930s often went, there was a lot of talk about racial equality within the ILG and with the cast of Pins and Needles, but not much actual racial equality in practice. The first black cast member was Olive Pearman, who had only a small supporting role as a seamstress. Black unionists sharply criticized Schaffer for ignoring black voices and he later did add a couple of black cast members, but no Latino cast members were ever hired on the production. Other cast members were pressured to suppress their Jewish identities and even change their names. And of course when the production was on the road, it was subject to local segregationist laws, which it did not try to challenge. The cast itself was quite leftist, although Schaffer himself was anti-communist and some fired cast members claimed they were redbaited out of the production. Dorothy Tucker, one of the actors, remembered, “there were a few socialists and a few communists among us.”

In March 1938, the cast went to Washington DC to play at the White House for Franklin Roosevelt. The first road show began in April 1938 with shows in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, among other cities. As demand grew, more workers joined the production, but Schaffer also brought more professional and semi-professional actors into the production, causing tensions behind the scenes. The first road show ended in January 1939, after 319 performances in 34 cities. The cast and show continued to change and professionalize, as most of the workers did eventually have to head back to their jobs in the garment factories. New versions of the production formed until finally, after 1104 performances, the show closed in New York in June 1940. It then went on the road for one last tour, closing for good in Los Angeles in May 1941.

As World War II began and the left-leaning unions moved toward supporting the war effort, Popular Front cultural productions began to fade, collapsing completely in the Cold War backlash after the war. No labor plays ever followed up on Pins and Needles. I can’t really argue that the failure to center working class cultural productions really made much difference in terms of shaping the future of the labor movement, the end of a creative labor movement seeking the broader production of a specific working class culture is ultimately something lost.

For more on Pins and Needles in the broader context of the Popular Front, see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century.

This is the 201st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: November 17, 1968

[ 61 ] November 17, 2016 |

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On November 17, 1968, the New York State Education Commissioner reasserted control over the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in Brooklyn, ending the strike by teachers that started when African-American activists fired white teachers in their schools in violation of the union contract. This fraught incident represented the difficult relationship between organized labor and other social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrated the increased militancy of teachers unions during this period, and suggested the complexity of labor’s responses to social groups making new demands upon society.

In 1967, African-Americans in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood, working with a pretty wide variety of white allies, demanded community control over their schools. More than 95 percent of the students were African-American or Latino and about 2/3 of the teachers were white. Such demands were increasingly common among communities of color during this era, especially among Chicano activists in the Southwest. They believed their schools were failing because of their inherent racism of the educational system. They believed the teachers were racist too. They wanted the students to learn about their history, read literature written by black writers, and be part of the revolutionary change demanded by Black Power activists nationwide. The city allowed Ocean Hill-Brownsville and a couple of other districts to experiment in community control beginning in 1967. Much of this community control movement nationwide had a strong anti-union element to it, especially among whites who supported it. One architect of the idea wanted to “destroy the professional education bureaucracy,” i.e., the unions.

The teachers were members of the United Federation of Teachers. They were largely Jewish and many considered themselves liberals or leftists. Other teachers were indeed pretty racist. This was a tricky issue. African-American parents had real concerns. On the other hand, the teachers had a collectively bargained contract. The head of the UFT was Albert Shanker. The contract he had negotiated with the city allowed teachers to advance through a serious of standardized tests that could allow them to move ahead depending on how they did on them. This merit-based system Shanker and the rank and file believed represented teachers effectively. It did indeed serve the white teachers well. But as standardized teachers often go, African-American teachers tended not to score as highly. So the tests and the contract did institutionalize racism.

Responding to this, the community activists fired several white teachers, violating the contract. Black teachers and whites who were not union members but committed to community control of the schools replaced them. Shanker and the UFT when ballistic and 350 teachers in the district went on strike on May 22. The community fired them all. Technically this meant that they were returned to the New York central school district office, where they would have to show up and hang out all day rather than actual firing, but it was effectively firing the teachers. This strike was a foretaste of the broader response once the new school year started in the fall. The activists behind community control wanted to ensure the fired teachers would never work again. Said the head of the community board who fired the teachers, “Not one of these teachers will be allowed to teach anywhere in this city. The black community will see to that.”

Shanker himself and the UFT as an institution had worked for civil rights. They had actively supported Freedom Summer in 1964. The UFT’s field rep in Ocean Hill-Brownsville was Sandra Feldman, a member of Harlem CORE and a volunteer during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But this was a bigger principle for the union. No union can survive if they can’t defend members’ jobs from arbitrary dismissal. Said Feldman, “From the point of view of the union, it was a totally basic issue. You’re talking about nineteen people who were told in effect: ‘You haven’t got jobs anymore.’ The Union really had no choice.”

The strike shattered the long alliance between Jews and African-Americans in New York politics. The UFT’s official stance on ethnicity was a melting pot idea that promoted teaching about ethnicity in the context of a Cold War nationalism that promoted individual achievement and consensus politics. The black activists in Ocean Hill-Brownsville rejected this liberal pluralism, especially the teaching of black history as equivalent to the European ethnic groups who had assimilated into American society. Of course black history is very different than European ethnic history, with systemic discrimination not only defining African-American life in 1968, but today. And many of the activists were openly anti-Semitic. One black teacher wrote a poem about Shanker that read “Hey Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head, you pale faced Jew boy, I wish you were dead.” Most of the New York left sided with the black activists, arguing the UFT was not acting in good faith. Others, including A. Philip Randolph and Michael Harrington, spoke out in favor of the UFT. Said Randolph, “If due process is not won in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, what will prevent white community groups from firing black teachers or white teachers with liberal views. What will prevent local Birchites and Wallaceites from taking over?” The AFL-CIO also supported their UFT brethren.

Mayor John Lindsey was initially supportive of the community control plan. But Shanker was frankly much more powerful than the people promoting this idea. The school year started with the entire school system going on strike for 36 days. 54,000 of the city’s 57,000 teachers walked out. The strike quickly forced Lindsay to backtrack. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools still operated despite the strike, although with the teachers striking outside, the education was not exactly effective. Over one million students had no school. Finally, on November 17, the state took direct control over Ocean Hill-Brownsville, ending the community control. The fired teachers were reinstated and the new teachers let go. Conflict at the school and in the community remained high. Albert Shanker became nationally famous over the strike.

Woody Allen would later portray Albert Shanker as the man who blew up the world in Sleeper. He would be posthumously granted the Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. Sadly, I don’t have to say which President Clinton.

I borrowed from Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, Peter Levy, The New Left and Labor in the 1960s , and Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession to write this post.

This is the 200th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Union Decline and Trump’s Rise

[ 90 ] November 14, 2016 |

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One thing about the apocalypse: those who specialize in a particular part of it suddenly become high demand. I spoke to The Atlantic:

In Michigan, home to the influential United Auto Workers, Republican Governor Rick Snyder passed one such law in 2012 amid mass protests. In the first year after the law went into effect, union membership in the state fell by 11 percent (though it has inched up a bit since then). In 2015, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker pushed the same type of law through with similar results. “Republicans knew this would decimate unions, and now we can see the impact,” says Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island.

Back in the 1980s, unions represented 22 percent of private-sector workers, he says. Now they represent only about 8 percent. Loomis points to two major historical shifts that inflicted major damage to the labor movement: the drying up of manufacturing jobs in the late 1970s as factories moved overseas, and more recently, Republican-led movements to pass laws restricting unionization. This year, West Virginia became the 26th state to pass right-to-work laws, which went into effect this summer.

But it’s not just right-to-work laws that have weakened the labor movement. Unions had tried to stop the impacts of globalization and automatization, Loomis says, but “they were overwhelmed by a bipartisan belief in globalized trade and nobody has taken long-term unemployment and community decline seriously.” Neither Ohio nor Pennsylvania has passed right-to-work legislation, but their industries—and the chance that they would vote Democratic—have fallen nevertheless.

The election results in Nevada reflect a stark contrast. Hillary Clinton won the state with the help of the labor movement, and in particular, with the help of Culinary Union, which put on an aggressive campaign to mobilize its 57,000 members to vote for Democrats. Clinton won by a large margin in Nevada and so did the state’s Democratic Senate candidate, Catherine Cortez Masto. “The key difference is that they were able to organize working-class people to get their votes,” says Loomis. There is also another key difference: The Culinary Union is mostly made up of Latino workers in the hotel and service industry, a different demographic from the predominantly white factory workers in the Rust Belt who made up the base of the labor movement there and have since seen their jobs disappear.

The real dichotomy in this election is how different right to work states have different labor movements. The role the Culinary Union plays in Nevada is a real model for other right to work states. Not easy to emulate but important. I hope to have more on this soon. It would help if I wasn’t getting migraine headaches as a result of post-election anxiety and fear and thus losing days of work.

This Day in Labor History: November 12, 1928

[ 7 ] November 12, 2016 |

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On November 12, 1928, workers for United Fruit in Ciénega, Colombia went on strike. This uprising against the total domination of United Fruit over workers’ lives represents how the company sought to control entire countries in its attempts to dominate the banana trade. The ensuing massacre of those workers a few weeks later demonstrates the very real power the company had in accomplishing that goal.

Founded in 1899 in a merger of fruit companies operating in Central America since the 1870s, United Fruit became arguably the most powerful company in the Americas in the early 20th century. It cut deals with nations to provide them with infrastructure in return for total control over the economy and significant control over politics. By 1901, Guatemala contracted with United Fruit to run its postal service. By 1930, it was the largest employer in Central America. It routinely demanded governments do its bidding and used it deep connections within the U.S. government to use American state power to accomplish its goals if necessary. The term “banana republic” originates with UFCO’s domination over nations like Guatemala and Costa Rica. It also had significant operations within Colombia, particularly the Caribbean coastal lowlands, perfect for large-scale banana production. The area around Santa Marta, a port town along a lovely bay, was the center of UFCO operations in the nation. Ciénega, a small town west of Santa Marta where many plantations were located, became an area where workers started resisting the total domination of the company over their lives.

The preparation for the strike began in October. On October 6, workers issued a set of demands that included a day off per week, hygienic dwelling places, compensation for accidents at work, a 50 percent pay increase for the lowest paid workers, the end of company scrip, weekly payments, sanitation, hospitals, and a number of other demands that highlight just how hard these workers lives were. These workers did not make enough to feed their families unless they brought their entire families with them. Employers and foremen often used to use the wives and daughters of workers for their sexual pleasure. Workers’ wages were routinely stolen by contractors and workers did not have actual contracts with UFCO. This was rank exploitation.

After a month of the company ignoring their demands, the Unión Sindical de Trabajadores de Magdalena issued an ultimatum to either negotiate with the workers or face a strike. The governor of the state of Magdalena urged the company to sit down with the workers. It refused. On November 11, workers gathered in Ciénaga. They declared a strike to begin the next day.

Immediately, the government was hostile. Colombian president Miguel Méndez was a conservative with no patience for the workers. He appointed General Carlos Cortés Vargas as military chief of the banana zone. Working closely with United Fruit’s paid informants, it used the company’s trains to transport troops through the region. The soldiers received extra money for this work to break any possibility of solidarity with the strikers. Company employees rode trains with the soldiers, pointing out workers it wanted arrested. Local officials did side with workers, including the mayor of Ciénega, a Liberal Party stronghold. Because of this significant solidarity, Cortés Vargas worried about his ability to police the region or even control his own troops, many of whom had worked on the banana plantations in the past.

Tensions grew on December 4, when UFCO started paying scabs to pick the fruit. Workers resisted, stopping the trains from passing through. Cortés Vargas then arrested hundreds of strikers. Responding to the strike, United Fruit demanded action. It used its connections in the press and the U.S. government to paint the strike as communist-dominated. During this imperialist period of American policies toward Latin America, with dozens of invasions of nations around the Caribbean Basin whenever the U.S. felt its interests under attack in any way, this was a very real threat. Company officials and the American embassy cabled to the State Department about the red threat. The Coolidge administration then sent word to the Colombian government that if it did not bust the strike, the U.S. might send in the Marines to do it for them.

The government decided to crush the strike. It suspended the rule of law in the banana zone. About 1:30 a.m., according to Cortés Vargas later account defending himself, he ordered his troops with machine guns to the train station. Workers refused to disperse when ordered. The troops then opened fire on the workers. We don’t know how many workers died. Minimum, it was several hundred. Some have claimed it was upwards of 2000. United Fruit itself told the U.S. embassy that between 500 and 600 workers were slaughtered, but the embassy revised that number to over 1000 within a few weeks. Amazingly, the massacre did not actually succeed in its major goal of dispersing the workers and ending the strike. Workers continued to gather. But with UFCO unwilling to negotiate, they had nowhere to go or nothing to do and the strike eventually faded. What was very clear though to all involved is that the sovereign power on the Colombian coast was not based in Bogota. It was out of United Fruit’s New Orleans’ headquarters.

The massacre was massive and grotesque. United Fruit then tried to cover it up by destroying all evidence in its own archives about the entire situation, including the photos it took. It did keep all evidence of worker violence, including photos of burned company stores or other company buildings, as displayed at the top of this post, in order to shape future tales of the event.

United Fruit’s domination of the region continued for decades, most notoriously in getting the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected president of Guatemala when he nationalized some of the company’s unused land for agrarian reform and land redistribution.

I borrowed from Kevin Coleman’s essay, “The Photos That We Don’t Get to See: Sovereignties, Archives, and the 1928 Massacre of Banana Workers in Colombia,” in Daniel Bender and Jana Lipman, eds., Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism.

This is the 199th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

SEPTA Strike Ends

[ 88 ] November 7, 2016 |

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Everyone who thought that the Philadelphia transit workers union should not use the opportunity to use its leverage to win its contract dispute can now relax. SEPTA settled its dispute with Philadelphia and will have full service tomorrow for election day. Not surprisingly, this leverage got the union a pretty good contract from what is known, with improvements in wages and pensions. This is what unions are supposed to do.

This Day in Labor History: November 7, 1861

[ 19 ] November 7, 2016 |

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On November 7, 1861, the U.S. Army occupied the South Carolina sea islands. Suddenly having to deal with the existence of thousands of slaves with no masters, the military engaged in what became known as the Port Royal Experiment. This precursor to Reconstruction is an important moment in American history, one that proved to skeptical whites that blacks would work without slavery and one that demonstrated the very real limits even for abolitionists in thinking about the post-slavery future in the South.

It’s a little hard to imagine the debates about black work in 1861. The idea that African-Americans were inherently lesser than whites was so ingrained, it was a real and open question in the North whether black people would work without white supervision. In part, this is what the Port Royal Experiment was about. What would black people do on the cotton farms without their masters? Moreover, the North really needed the cotton. It’s own textile factories had suddenly lost their raw supplies when the Civil War began and the U.S. had lost one of its leading export products to Britain, which Lincoln desperately hoped to keep out of the war. So a series of factors came together in South Carolina to create the need to figure out what a post-slave economy might look like.

By January 1862, the military was working with the black population to grow cotton for the army instead of for the slaveholders. General Thomas Sherman sent a request to the north for teachers to come and work with the slaves. The official beginning of the Port Royal Experiment was that April, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase appointed Boston attorney Edward Pierce to organize a relief effort and training program for the slaves that would include hospitals and schools and programs to allow the slaves to buy land and farm for themselves. By May, 53 missionaries and educators were on their way to South Carolina. The ex-slaves were employed in growing cotton for the wage of $1 for every 400 pounds they harvested. Edward Philbrick led the labor plan. He ended the slave system of gang labor, gave workers garden plots for themselves, and provided a variety of incentives for the workers. Ultimately, men like Philbrick wanted to implement the free labor ideology at the heart of the Republican Party in the South and teach it to the ex-slaves. As the government took over more plantations during the war, it began to implement Philbrick’s plan through its confiscated lands.

In 1863, President Lincoln built on this program by allowing for the limited confiscation of Confederate plantations and the division of the land among the slaves. Limited to 40,000 acres of abandoned plantations, most of the impact took place in the sea islands. The land was sold for $1.25 an acre. Although most African-Americans could not afford anything near this price, local freed slaves bought about 2000 acres of land with the money they could scrape together. Northern whites could also buy the land and did so, creating new plantations for themselves worked by paid laborers. The freed slaves also founded their first free town in South Carolina, Mitchelville, on Hilton Head Island. By 1865, it had 1500 residents. Largely these residents wanted to live away from white people, whether from the North or the South. They wanted freedom, autonomy, and independence to make their own decisions about life and work.

The government’s role in redistributing the land and taking care of the ex-slaves was, like much in the Civil War, deeply contradictory and filled with bureaucratic chaos. The soldiers under Sherman and the civilians sent down by Chase clashed constantly. The soldiers routinely beat and raped the slaves, stealing their food and their land. All of this outraged the missionaries and of course the freed slaves, but little was done, despite the official complaints. Congress never clarified what exactly should happen in the sea islands. Chase’s military men cared about getting the cotton in any way possible while his civilians wanted to teach citizenship to the ex-slaves. No cohesive plan ever developed and thus the success of the experiment was compromised from the beginning. The cotton did come, but not to the extent that it had before the war, in no small part because a lot of the ex-slaves did not want to grow cotton. A boll weevil epidemic also took a major toll on the crop. Philbrick himself believed the experiment a failure because the ex-slaves did not do precisely as he wanted them to do. He ended up selling off the plantation he had bought to the residents in small plots.

The Port Royal Experiment was tremendously successful in one way–it demonstrated to skeptical northerners that black people would work for themselves. Again, I recognize that this seems obviously self-evident but that was not the case in the early 1860s. Unfortunately by 1865, support for the redistribution of Confederate land to the ex-slaves had become very low throughout the North. Even among most Republicans and abolitionists, the sanctity of private property would be more important than economic redistribution. The suffrage became the key for abolitionists to lock in black rights, despite the fact that the first thing the ex-slaves wanted was access to land.

As for the land already redistributed in 1863, Andrew Johnson ordered it given back to the original white landowners in 1865, even after William Tecumseh Sherman had extended it through Field Order No. 15. The Port Royal Experiment came to a sad end. But not all of the land was claimed by the ex-owners and black landowning remained significant in the area well into the 20th century.

In the late 1930s, Sam Mitchell, one of the last remaining living people who lived through this told a Federal Writers Project interviewer, “I think slavery is just a murdering of the people. I think freedom been a great gift. I like my master and I guess he was as good to his slave as he could be, but I rather be free.”

The most complete historical discussion of the Port Royal Experiment is Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, which I recommend.

This is the 198th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

In Conclusion, Both Parties Are the Same

[ 222 ] November 6, 2016 |

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I was a pretty good boy this whole election. I avoided dealing with leftier-than-thou people on Facebook who talked about the evils of $$$$hillary and how she wants to start a new Cold War against noted ally of the American left, Vladimir Putin. But yesterday, I finally succumbed to some very stupid people. This was an error. The one good thing about this election is making it clear who should be culled from my Facebook world.

In any case, if you still know people who can’t imagine sullying their bodily fluids by voting for Hillary Clinton over a fascist, note to those people that the corporate lobby is freaking out because they fear Clinton court appointees will rule right to work laws unconstitutional. Which would be the greatest thing imaginable.

Building Coalitions with the White Working Class

[ 305 ] November 5, 2016 |

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One of the least appealing things to me about liberals during this election has been the gleeful dismissal of the white working class, the open desire to not have to think about them anymore in some sort of new Democratic Party that does not need their votes to win. I do get some of that–after all, the equation in the media where “working Americans = white men” is very annoying. But in the end, racist that many white working class people may be, they are still Americans and not only deserve economic policies that give them the chance for a dignified future, but in fact should be a target of class-based organizing that builds bridges with working people of other races and ethnicity. Sarah Jaffe highlights one example of this, in Indiana.

 Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) had hired a construction company that used some union labor and some non-union, undocumented workers to helm an expansion project. The unions involved reached out for help to the Workers’ Project, at the time an initiative of the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council (CLC), to represent workers who weren’t formally members of the Council’s member unions. The unions had planned a campaign under the banner of “Local Jobs for Local People,” but Workers’ project co-founders Tom Lewandowski, at the time president of the CLC, and Mike Lauer, director of the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters, argued against this framing—it would contribute to xenophobia, to us-against-them thinking. Instead, Lewandowski says, “Our operational theme for this campaign was going to be, ‘If they’re getting fucked, we’re getting fucked.’”

Community outreach also paid off when a local Mexican restaurant owner stepped in to help with the campaign, offering lunch receipts from Saturdays as proof that the laborers were working overtime for which they weren’t getting paid. “We ended up eventually developing enough trust among the undocumented workers that they began to come to meetings,” Lewandowski says. “I would have them sign their names on a sheet and I said, ‘What do you want to call yourselves? Because you are a union at this point.’ They said ‘IPFW Construction Workers Association.’” The union workers kept an eye on safety conditions for the undocumented workers, and when the non-union workers held an informational picket outside the job site to protest threats to their jobs, the building trades honored their picket line and refused to work. Eventually, some of the undocumented workers won settlements; some of them also got into the unions.

“If they’re getting fucked, we’re getting fucked” isn’t a TV-ready campaign slogan, but it speaks to the core organizing philosophy of the Workers’ Project: Solidarity, not scapegoating. In Indiana, where Donald Trump won the Republican primary handily and selected his running mate, Governor Mike Pence, trying to rally anger about trade and immigration into a wave he can ride into the White House, such campaigns have special significance. While organized labor has begun only in recent years to reverse course on immigration, to support the rights of undocumented workers and guestworkers and welcome new immigrants into its ranks, in Fort Wayne, organizers were building a bulwark against Trumpism long before Trump hit his first campaign stage. They were doing their best to create a model for the rest of labor as the old model crumbled around them.

The Workers’ Project exists to organize the broader community around issues that matter to working people. It is not a union, but it is supported by union members; it is not a community organization, but it is open to the community. Some of its projects, like the annual Labor Day picnic, draw near 6,000 people; others, like a high school workers’ initiative spearheaded in the 1990s, focus on specific people left out of labor unions. Over the years, its funding and staffing have fluctuated; some projects lasted for years and others wrapped up quickly. But its mission has remained consistent, says Cheryl Hitzemann, who has worked with the Workers’ Project for years: “to help give workers some voice and power in the workplace, the economy and the community.” To act as a counterbalance to business and corporate interests.

She places this in the larger context of the labor movement figuring out what to do with its Central Labor Councils and the community-based unionism it knows it needs to survive, but doesn’t always do a great job of supporting. Moreover, she makes the compelling case that if any movement is going to build cross-racial alliances within the working-class, it is going to be organized labor. There really isn’t anything else that speaks to workers as workers, instead of as whites, as Christians, or whatever. The labor movement is far from perfect, but its politics have improved in the last two decades. It can certainly do better, but supporting what it has done so far is also critical. And projects like the one in Fort Wayne are necessary to fight against the racist politics dominating the white working class in this election.

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